Making Peace with Wellness

Wellness may be the biggest buzzword in our industry since experiences—and with at least as many different definitions. Everyone seems to be clamoring to capture a piece of the wellness pie, whose ingredients include fitness, spa, nutrition, spirituality, mindfulness, meditation, sustainability—you name it! The Global Wellness Institute uses a similarly broad definition to size the “global wellness economy” at $4.2 trillion in 2017—with “wellness tourism” accounting for $639 billion of that. 

Yoga at Six Senses
However you define it, there is no doubt that wellness is on the minds of travel consumers, particularly the luxury market. I asked YouGov, whose annual Affluent Perspective Global Study provides a detailed, deeply personal picture of the lives and lifestyles of the global affluent—the top 10% or higher of households in 26 countries—to look into their data on wellness and travel. They reported back that about 30% of the global affluent are “passionate” about health and wellness. “In one way, wellness is a representation of the freedom that their money provides,” YouGov Managing Partner Cara David told me. Those passionate about health and wellness are more likely to be luxury purchasers (81% vs 69%), and nearly half (47%) say they are expecting to spend more on luxury in the coming year. They’re also more likely to stay in luxury hotels; book suites or connected rooms; travel to exotic destinations like Fiji, New Zealand, or Thailand; show interest in ocean cruises; and take family vacations.

Overall, David says, this group spent around 13% more on travel in the past year than those who don’t care as much about health and wellness—which explains why we are acting like they are all our new best friends. But it feels like the term is becoming oversaturated. Jack Ezon, Founding Partner of Embark, agrees. “The term wellness is being used—overused—by marketers in ways that seem careless,” he says. “It’s in beauty, in food, in workplaces, in everything. Yes, it’s a comprehensive lifestyle, but our clients are starting to feel overwhelmed. And now of course, every hotel with a Peloton bike or a couple of spa treatment rooms is calling itself a wellness destination.” Or, as I’ve seen, a hotel that charges around $50 per night extra for a “wellness room” stocked with a yoga mat, bath salts, a sleep mask, and a few other doodads.
I spoke to a few people in the industry about how they’re defining wellness, and who is approaching it in an effective, authoritative way. “Wellness has become so much more than taking a spa vacation,” said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, Co-Owner and Co-President of Valerie Wilson Travel. “It’s the culmination of all the activities we’re doing, the food we’re eating, how we’re taking care of ourselves. We’ve become much more tuned into the self-care mindset—especially when we’re on vacation and not working the rat race.” Some of her clients still look for wellness at a traditional spa retreat like Mii Amo or Cal-A-Vie; for cruisers, it might mean ditching the car and driver on a shore excursion in favor of a walking tour or even a kayak trip. Wilson Wetty also applauds properties that simply provide guests with tools to create their own wellness experience. She recently visited andBeyond’s Bateleur Camp in the Masai Mara, which provides a “gym in a bag” so guests can do their yoga poses in their own room.
I think we need to make a distinction between companies that are enhancing their products for wellness-oriented guests—expanding their spa menus, offering more active excursions, bringing in meditation practitioners—and those offering a more holistic approach. Indeed, YouGov’s study shows that affluent people consider wellness to be multidimensional, with physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual aspects. “The majority (54%) focus on three or more areas, with the top three being physical (77%), emotional (63%), and intellectual (51%),” says David.
Canyon Ranch Berkshires
Thus we see many hotels and spas expanding their offerings to include a little bit of everything. The risk is that it dilutes the overall message. Ezon describes Canyon Ranch—whose Berkshires location offers everything from tennis to hypnosis to anti-aging facials to tarot readings—as being unfocused. “Is it a place you go to discover what you might be interested in—like a cruise ship of wellness? That’s fine if that’s their approach, but they need to express that more clearly,” he says. “The key to remaining relevant is to clearly define your position.” Ezon praises The Ranch in Malibu for its narrow but very clear position: a weight loss and physical fitness program that includes hiking, exercise classes, yoga, and a strict vegetarian menu. “I get that,” he says, “but I couldn’t tell you the difference between these other places that offer a bit of everything.” (Canyon Ranch’s upcoming “Wellness Retreat” in Woodside, California, with only 38 rooms and treehouses and a roster of individually curated, multi-day programs, promises a less diffuse experience.)

You will find a bit of everything on the Six Senses website: sleep programs, healthy cuisine, all stripe of practitioners, even something called “forest bathing.” I asked CEO Neil Jacobs if he’s concerned about the brand, which operates 49 hotels, resorts, and spas worldwide, being seen as a wellness “supermarket.” He responded by tracing Six Senses’ 26-year evolution, starting with yoga and growing steadily to incorporate sleep, nutrition, and anti-aging programs. “It’s not about any one individual system, it’s about creating a process that allows us to execute on different modalities. The customer has become much more sophisticated, and they expect us to tell them what’s next.” That’s why the brand is exploring Ayurvedic treatments and “energy medicine” derived from shamanistic practices in South America.
Jacobs defines wellness as “that holistic spot where the body, mind, and spirit converge, and you reach a place of calm and health and trueness that contributes to a better, more well life. I know that’s marketing-speak, but we really want to be sure that when you leave, you’re in a better place than you were when you arrived.” They must be doing something right: Travel + Leisure readers just named Six Senses their favorite hotel brand for the third year running.
Six Senses is opening its first urban hotel in New York next year. It will have competition just a few blocks away in the form of the Equinox Hotel. The fitness club brand’s first hotel property opened last month in Hudson Yards, another showcase for a multi-pronged approach to wellness that encompasses sleep, diet, exercise, and an overall sense of well-being. “I think the term wellness is too broad and overused,” Christopher Norton, CEO of Equinox Hotels, told me. “But it does encompass what a lot of people are looking for as they balance work and life, family and friends, hobbies, and everything else.”
Equinox Hotel
Norton left Four Seasons, where he was President and COO, for the opportunity to help Equinox stand out in a crowded marketplace “The most difficult thing to do today in luxury is differentiate with something you can really own. Equinox is the only hospitality brand in the world that has the credibility, authenticity—and almost permission—to do what we do.” That meant redefining what a hotel brand stands for: “Lifestyle used to mean going to a cool rooftop bar and drinking a lot of booze,” he says. “That concept is outdated now. We want to be strong and healthy so we can live a high-performance lifestyle, and we’re more educated and sophisticated about our choices.”
Equinox Hotels are designed for clients who care about good nutrition, exercise, and sleeping habits—and want to be around other people who share those values. The New York location is attached to a 60,000-square-foot fitness club and has a restaurant and bar run by Stephen Starr. The rooms are designed for what Norton calls “regeneration,” with temperature, light, and noise optimized for sleeping.[4] Along with a lively pool deck overlooking the Hudson, a bar, and an expansive spa, the hotel is pitching itself as an urban resort for people who are really into their healthy lifestyles.
With nightly rates starting at around $700, I see the Equinox appealing mostly to corporate travelers eager to maintain their routines. Ezon sees wellness for the business traveler as the real opportunity right now. “They’re the ones who most need to stay balanced and stick to healthy habits while they’re on the road,” he says. “Any program that helps them stay fit, sleep well, eat healthy while they’re battling jet lag and running for their next flight is worthwhile. Many of our corporate clients look at fitness facilities when they’re choosing a hotel—it’s almost as important as rate.” 
Airlines should also be thinking about how to help road warriors counteract the physical challenges of travel. I like what Singapore Airlines has introduced on its newly relaunched ultra-long-haul flights from North American gateways, in partnership with Canyon Ranch. Their programs help passengers schedule their sleeping and waking times during the 18-plus-hour flights; created in-seat stretches to help them stay limber; and created menus that follow a jet-lag-fighting ratio of protein to carbs to fats. Canyon Ranch’s chefs and experts, including former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, were heavily involved in building the program. And given that it’s Singapore Airlines, everything is executed on an extremely high level, with the food made to look and taste more indulgent than it actually is. “We wanted to ensure that our product is aligned with our customers’ values, and themes of wellness and sustainability are front and center,” James Boyd, the airline’s Vice President of Public Relations, told me. “We saw the relaunch of the world’s longest flight as an opportunity to develop a sharp focus on wellness to our in-flight product. At the same time, our customers enjoy having a choice, so they don’t need to stick with the routine for the whole flight—they might have a health-conscious main course and an indulgent dessert.”   In the end, that’s how I think luxury travel companies will find the most success as they enter the wellness space. Be true to your brand, whether that means over-delivering on quality like Singapore Airlines or constantly innovating like Six Senses. Rely on expertise, even if that means joining forces with partners or practitioners who really know their stuff. And give your customers a choice—they know best what their goals are, how much exercise and healthy food and indulgence they want, how hard they want to push themselves. “The clients are really the ones who are demanding this,” says Wilson Wetty. “They don’t want to be sedated and driven around—they want a healthier, more active lifestyle. They go on vacation to be inspired, to take care of themselves, to grow intellectually and spiritually.” 

The industry just needs to be careful not to try to be all things to all people and water the concept of wellness down. “The wellness community needs to help itself by creating clear definitions of what is what,” says Ezon. “Otherwise they’ll be in the same boat as experiential—it will be everywhere but nobody will know what it means.”   So, what’s your definition of wellness?

How has your company addressed the growing interest in it? Let’s keep the conversation going!
My best,
Peter J. Bates
Strategic Vision